Mellow Velo: Bicycle touring in the UK (part 2)

Bespoked: The UK Handmade Bicycle Show had been a whirlwind of late nights, early mornings and  never ending talking. I was surprised to still have a voice. All I could think about as we packed up was what it would be like to lie flat and sleep. Unfortunately, it would be a little while before I could indulge in that – Monkey King needed to be packed for my Scottish cycle tour.

Back at Matthew Sowter’s Oxted home I was figuring out how best to load my bike. And what to leave behind. I needed to be self sufficient for a week. According to the weather report the first few days would be dry, but the forecast looked less welcoming after that.

I packed, repacked, shuffled and jiggled my gear about until it all fitted – I could finally lie flat. It was the early hours of the morning. Four hours later the first of my trains would leave for London, first stop on my way to Inverness in the North of Scotland.

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Between trains: fully loaded next to the Thames, London

From London, trains took me North and into Scotland. There was a brief stop in Glasgow to change trains and by early evening I was stepping out of the warm coach and onto a frigid and freezing cold platform at Inverness.

The Great Glen Way is a long distance walking route that follows the Great Glen from Inverness to Fort William. The Great Glen is a series of Lochs in a gelogical cleft that seperates the East and West side of the Scottish Highlands. It is this geological fault that is responsible for pushing up the impressive mountains that give the Highlands its lumpy nature. The Great Glen has long been an important route through the Highlands and before integration into the United Kingdom was the scene of many skirmishes and battles between highland clans. In the mid 1800’s construction of the Caledonian Canal linked all the lochs making it possible to sail from Inverness to Fort William. Today, the canal tow paths make up a large portion of the Great Glen Way.

I set out along the Way from Inverness Castle. The sun was low in the sky and the castle’s pink sandstone walls glowed warmly. Down below the River Ness flowed out to the sea, draining the famous Loch Ness. I followed some river side paths and an old public footpath to the outskirts of town and then up into the hills alongside Loch Ness.

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The River Ness flowing through Inverness, Scotland

Scotland is a spacious place. Almost the size of England and Wales combined it is home to about 6 million hardy inhabitants. There is more open space here than anywhere else in the UK. Perhaps it’s just that they have so much space, but Scotland has very lenient public access and outdoor rights. In fact, it is perfectly legal to wild camp on any open ground provided one follows a few simple rules regarding fires and hygiene. It was such a campsite I found nestled next to a small lakelet high above the twinkling lights of Inverness. I pitched my tent on soft green grass beneath moss-bearded pines and settled in for the night. It was good to lie flat.

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Wild camping above Inverness

Loch Ness is a steep sided, trench shaped body of water. There is little room for shore side roads or paths and the first part of the next day’s ride was spent gaining height and following old cattle routes across high moors. The terrain varied from muddy footpaths to dirt roads and forestry tracks. The wet ground made the going slow and on most of the hills I quickly found myself walking.

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High moors above Loch Ness

After a few hours the trail began dropping down to the Loch edge. A narrow ribbon of singletrack meandered through thick forest as it gently dipped to the shore. Every now and then views of the Loch would be visible through gaps in the trees. Far below were the ruins of a castle, a strategic stronghold from which this part of the Glen would have been defended hundreds of years ago.

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Forest singletrack high above Loch Ness

I visited the Loch Ness Museum and followed the convoluted history of the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. When I emerged an hour later the Loch looked a little more sinister, even with so many secrets revealed – how many still were hidden? The Way soon climbed into the hills again and I followed forestry roads through the trees. The route alternated between dirt roads and footpaths and by late afternoon I could see the small town of Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness. I’d covered about 60km since leaving the outskirts of Inverness that morning and I began looking out for a suitable campsite. I soon found one, replete with thick mossy mattress and a view over the Loch. I treated myself to a cold bath in the stream alongside and fell asleep to the sounds of running water.

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The view over Loch Ness from my mossy mattress

I had a lazy start the next morning. I’d woken to a flat tire and I took my time getting ready to leave in between cups of tea and stale, dunked raisin buns. I was unexpectedly tender from the previous days ride – the portaging and maneuvering of the heavily laden Monkey King in the mud had taken it’s toll. I wasn’t sure what to expect that day but I was already almost half way along the Glen and there were still 3 days in hand before I needed to board my train from Fort William.

Within an hour I was rolling into Fort Augustus. Nestled at the cosy southern end of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is home to the northernmost flight of locks in the Caledonian Canal system.  When I arrived some boats were already in the locks, the gates were closed and water was being pumped into the lock to raise the boats to the next level. I watched the excitement for a little while before carrying on.

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In previous centuries the canal saw much more commercial activity from fishing and trade boats. These days it’s home to a more relaxed crowd and most of the boats I saw were being sailed for pleasure.  The Great Glen Way joins the canal paths at Fort Augustus  and the hills were mostly behind me. I followed the canal paths to the lock system at the Northern end of Loch Oich. Here the way followed some grassy footpaths before joining an old, rooty, loch-side dirt road that slithered beneath ancient trees right against the water’s edge.

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Loch Lochy

The Great Glen Way once again followed canal paths until it reached Loch Lochy. Here the route crosses the canal and heads along the edge of the Loch. Open hillside and farmlands soon give way to lush, mossy forest but the route is level and I covered ground quickly. It was becoming more and more obvious that the weather wasn’t going to hold and near the southern end of Loch Lochy I found a spot, under trees by the water’s edge.

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Across the water Ben Nevis was visible every now and then as the clouds blew in. I could feel the frosty blast from it’s snowy summit. As the weather closed in, so too did the views of the mountain. I climbed into my sleeping bag as the first drops of rain hit the flysheet. It was freezing cold and in a bid to warm up I cooked inside the tent. I had a lazy supper of instant noodles and stale rolls. My after dinner tea had a chicken tang from the left over noodle flavouring in my pot.

When I woke the next morning it was still raining. I decided to stay where I was until the weather had improved. There wouldn’t be anything to see until conditions cleared – no point in pressing on. Fort William was a mere 20 km south and I knew I”d easily reach it the following day. The rain cleared off that afternoon and I was able to explore a little. I walked along the water’s edge – across the way Ben Nevis proudly gleamed in the afternoon sun. At it’s foot nestled Fort William marking the southern end of the Great Glen Way. I returned to my tent and used the last of my cooker gas to make tea and noodles. I’d have to get to Fort William the next day – I’d now used up all my food!

That night was bitterly cold. Apparently the mercury had dropped to -5 degrees in the night. The next morning the ground was crunchy underfoot with it’s coating of frost and my hands stung and throbbed as I packed away my freezing tent. The sun was out; the sky vast blue. My lungs were afire breathing the icy air.

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The shores of Loch Lochy

After a few gentle miles on narrow district lanes the Great Glen Way sidled once again up to the loch’s edge. I followed groomed gravel paths that meandered along the shore. Across the way Ben Nevis was growing steadily larger. From this angle the sunken caldera of it’s summit was starkly clear.

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At Loch Oich’s southern end I joined another canal path en route to the southernmost flight of locks in the Caledonian Canal system, Neptune’s Staircase. Eight locks comprise the flight and these raise the canal to an impressive 19.2m above sea-level. Beyond was the small hamlet of Corpach and Loch Linnhe – seemingly the loch where boats go to die.

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Loch Linnhe was scattered with the remains of boats old and new. I followed the shores of the loch heading straight towards Ben Nevis. Fort William was visible now, huddled against the foot of the mountain at the other side of the loch. Near the outskirts of the town Inverlochy Castle stood guardian over the southern end of the Glen. Although a relatively small stronghold it saw many skirmishes and battles and today its crumbling ramparts retain a haunted air.

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The end of my journey was very close now. I arrived in Fort William around lunch time and wasted no time in feeding myself. I’d had nothing to eat since my supper of noodles the night before and I was hungry. I tried not to think of my appearance and smell as I huddled in the corner of a coffee den waiting for my burger and fries. I ate up greedily, eyeing my bike leant against the glass outside. As I was eating a group of cyclists congregated outside. Their bikes were clean and their pannier bags looked fresh. They were about to set off on their own bicycle tour. I felt suddenly envious – this trip I’d been dreaming of for so long was now at an end and I wished I could start it all over again.

I had a couple of hours in hand before my train would leave town. I bought some beers and headed down to the water’s edge. I’d soon be back in crowded London and I wanted to hang onto this freedom and space for as long as I could.

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe it all in.

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Toasting the end of the trail

 

 

 

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